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Predators vs. Ducks preview: A look at Anaheim’s defensemen

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Oh dang, this group is actually really good.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

This is will be the best blueline the Preds have faced in the playoffs. By a lot.

The Hawks were a one-man show with Duncan Keith, the Blues didn’t have the speed to keep up with the Preds offense. But the Ducks have speed, skill, vision, and strength to match anything the Preds throw at them.

In most analyst’s eyes, the Ducks have the 2nd best defense in the league right now behind Nashville’s. I would take that further: Preds blueline is 1A, Ducks blueline is 1B.

Everyone of these guys can skate, handle the puck, push around opposing forwards, and contribute on special teams. The combos they rolled in the Oilers series really started clicking (outside of maybe Game 6) and they appear to have their swagger (and their health) back.

This will be a tough challenge.

Cam Fowler/Sami Vatanen

The de facto top pairing has everything. Offense, defense, leadership, experience, skill, and speed.

Fowler has been with the Ducks since 2011 and has finished at or around 30 points nearly every season since then. He put up 39 points in 80 games this year, adding five more in 11 playoff games. While he still puts up solid production on offense, Fowler received the most defensive zone starts of any Duck defender in the regular season:

Courtesy of hockeyviz.com

Interestingly, Fowler’s role changed in the playoffs somewhat. He missed the entire Flames series due to injury, but he when returned to the lineup against the Oilers he received more offensive zone starts than defensive zone starts (though not by a wide margin). Chalk it up to protecting a player returning from injury maybe?

Either way, Fowler can do it all. He played most of his even strength minutes against Milan Lucic, who was held to four points in seven games (remember, there were a metric ton of goals scored in this series, so that’s pretty solid—Lucic had two points in that Game Six debacle). He was also a big part of that dramatic Game Five comeback, scoring a goal to get the Ducks within one.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Fowler receives heavy minutes against the JOFA line, so they better be prepared to face a defender that can play at both ends of the ice.

Vatanen plays on the right side and has had an up-and-down year. After scoring 21 goals in his previous two seasons combined, he scored only three this past year and has only one point in the playoffs so far. He too missed some time with injury, but he played in five games of the Edmonton series and averaged around 21 minutes ice-time, so he must be feeling ok.

Vatanen is a small-ish defenseman, though he plays bigger than that. He’s adept at blocking shots with his stick and can maneuver in and around forwards pretty well, much like Josi.

These two make a balanced pair and have very few weaknesses. That they have recently battled injuries is the only worry for the Ducks.

Hampus Lindholm/Brandon Montour

After an uncomfortable standoff this past fall, the Ducks and Lindholm agreed to a 6 year deal worth $31.5 million. This will keep Lindholm in a Ducks uniform well into his prime years and at a decent price tag (still not Ellis value... but who is?).

He responded to that contract with a 6 goal, 14 assist regular season, which seems disappointing until you see this:

Lindholm drives a ton of offense while also playing solid defense. He was among the league leaders in the regular season in shot attempt for percentage, right there with guys like Brent Burns, Mark Giordano, and Mattias Ekholm. Lindholm is more Ekholm than Burns in that his skill is in great passing and vision. He can shoot, but his skill is in distributing the puck and reading the game exceptionally well.

I can see Lindholm really succeeding out there against the Preds bottom six. If he gets into an extended play in the Preds zone with the 4th line out there, you can expect bad things to happen.

Lindholm has partnered with both Montour and Manson in the regular season, though he’s been with Montour most of the playoffs.

Montour is a young pup, but he’s very good. An offensive minded defender, he loves to jump deep into the offensive zone if he can. He’s got a Subban-esque element to his game, always taking risks, knowing he has the speed to recover if he needs to. He has yet to score in the playoffs and I think the Preds would like to keep it that way: you don’t want to give a young guy like this the confidence he needs to take his game to the next level.

Shea Theodore/Josh Manson

Pretty crazy when one of your “bottom pair” defensemen leads your blueline in points in the playoffs. But that’s exactly the case with Shea Theodore.

Thrust into a major top four role with the injuries to Fowler and Vatanen, Theodore responded with seven points in 11 games, including a couple goals. For a guy with an unceremonious regular season—losing playing time to Kevin Bieksa and spending time in the AHL—that’s quite a response. And now with Fowler and Vatanen back, he can play a much simpler role, feeding off of that confidence. It’s dangerous dealing with a confident player with something to prove.

Manson is also another young gun for the Ducks who made a push for the top four over the last couple seasons. He emerged as Lindholm’s partner for most of the regular season until the Ducks called up Montour in March. Manson is a bigger defender who can play a nice physical game while also competing well in the offensive zone. His skills on the puck are decent and he can skate well for being 6’3”. He’s as good a “6th defensemen” as you will find in this league.

All stats courtesy of hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com and are even strength unless otherwise stated.